The Function of the Editor in Sartor Resartus
by Jim Farrar (1986)
To be perfectly frank, I had my doubts about Sartor Resartus. The text would be impossible, I feared, the subject incomprehensible and the writing dull and heavy and tedious. It would be difficult reading.
This was before I opened the book. Now that I've read it, I'm happy to say I don't feel that way at all.
Sartor Resartus is a quirky and unusual work which uses metaphors (of course, the entire book is a metaphor) as efficiently as anything I've ever read. The prose is both graceful and rhythmic, punctuated with insight, humor, and a playful spirit.
I've even managed to find a practical application for Herr Teufelsdrockh's philosophy. It came while watching the "Donahue" program this morning. The subject was cross-dressing, men who are perfectly normal aside from a tendency to dress themselves in women's clothing.
Three men who cross-dressed were guests on the show. And of course their presence invoked the wrath of all the morally upright--uptight, actually--members of the studio audience. During the course of the hour these fellows were labeled as sickos, child molesters, and, more than likely, communists.
Not to mention their poor taste in clothes.
I was immediately reminded of Teufelsdrockh's words: Whence, then, their so unspeakable difference? From clothes.
The next few pages, then, are about differences. The differences I speak of, however, are not sartorial but, rather, pertain to differences of voice. More specifically, it is intended to be a brief examination of whose personality and philosophy, the Editor's or Teufelsdrockh's, we actually see in Book One of Sartor Resartus.
The Function of the Editor
First and foremost, the Editor in Sartor Resartus serves as translator of Teufelsdrockh's work. Written in German, the original manuscript has been reworked into English by our editor. In addition to this most basic of literary chores, however, the Editor also organizes, both literally (note the six paper bags) and figuratively, Teufelsdrockh's philosophy and autobiographical comments into a document and form that is accessible to an English reader.
The Editor tells us that this has been no easy matter. Teufelsdrockh, it seems, tends toward desultory expostulation, always brilliant but hardly, if ever, cogent to the point of being a priori. The Editor asks our patience in this and makes his own metaphor:
Wise man was he who counselled that Speculation should have free course, and look fearlessly towards all the thirty-two points of the compass, withersoever howsoever it listed.
Teufelsdrockh's philosophy can certainly be considered as falling under the Editor's definition of speculation and, like the points of a compass, are best understood when considered in a non-linear, circular fashion. By doing so, the Editor establishes the tone of Teufeldrockh's style and, at the same time, prepares us and gives us the proper attitude with which to approach the professor's philosophy. It's not unlike reading Finnegan's Wake, I think, in which the reader must give the author his given and then accept the reality that flows from whatever premise has been proposed. However, in Sartor Resartus, unlike Finnegan's Wake, we have a guide, an editor who explains to us that which we would undoubtedly find incomprehensible because of its structure.
Stylistic Qualities of the Editor
Though Book One is ostensibly about Teufelsdrockh, his philosophy and how the book came into being, it is the Editor whom we come to know best. Everything that is attributed to Teufelsdrockh is delivered to us by the Editor.
The Editor tells us that Teufelsdrockh is not a skilled writer. Indeed, that
[o]f his sentences perhaps not more than nine-tenths stand straight on their legs; the remainder are in quite angular attitudes, buttressed-up by props (of parentheses and dashes), and ever with this or the other tagrag hanging from them; a few even sprawl-out helplessly on all sides, quite broken-backed and dismembered.
But the Editor writes very well, and it is actually his words that make up the bulk of the text.
By design, each chapter is short, with a brief introduction in italics explaining its content. The Editor's writing has a lyrical, almost musical sound to it, and every chapter is constructed in similiar fashion. In the spirit of Teufelsdrockh, we suppose, the Editor begins each section with a general statement of some sort, wanders off and away from any semblance to straightforward exposition, and then returns to form a conclusion that is firmly entrenched in reality. To bring what order we can out of this chaos shall be part of our endeavour.
Throughout each chapter, however, there's no mistaking whose voice it is we're hearing. It is unmistakably the Editor's. He tells us, for example, as he describes having heard Teufelsdrockh laugh (only once!) that [t]he man who cannot laugh is not only fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils; but his whole life is already a treason and a stratagem.
The Editor translates, explains, organizes, and continually comments on the material that he is editing. What we get, eventually, is as clear a picture of the Editor's personality and stylistic technique as we do of Teufelsdrockh's. The Editor writes that on the whole, as in opening new mine-shafts. . .there is much rubbish in his Book, though likewise specimens of invaluable ore.
This is an editor who most definitely does not write from a neutral perspective. I think the point I'm trying to make, then, is that in Book One the Editor synthesizes Teufelsdrockh's personality and general philosophy into a text that reveals as much about the editor as it does anything else. In a sense, he and Teufelsdrockh become one for us. This is done with humor, by editorial comment and by organization and stylistic form. To use an appropriate metaphor, it is the Editor who dresses Teufelsdrockh up for us.
Of course it is Carlyle we're actually reading, whose words bounce about in our heads as we try to absorb the Editor's and Teufeldrockh's comments and philosophy. Of course. We keep reminding ourselves of this, as if eventually we'll be able to believe it. There is no sense of a third party, which is, of course, Carlyle himself.
Paradoxically, Carlyle is Teufeldrockh once removed by another character of his own creation, the Editor. As he wrote in a letter to the publisher of Fraser's Magazine prior to the serialization of Sartor Resartus, [t]he Creed promulgated on all these thing, as you may judge, is mine and firmly believed: for the rest, the main Actor in the business ("Editor of these Sheets," as he often calls himself) assumes a kind of Conservative (though Anti-quack) character. . .
We can credit Carlyle's ability as a writer for keeping the Editor and the professor apart (not to mention eliminating himself completely) and for creating two seperate and very distinct entities.
In Book One, we come to know the Editor every bit as well as we do Teufelsdrockh.